A little more than a year ago, Yekutiel Zeevi was starring as his recreational soccer team's goalkeeper at the Long Lots Elementary School field.
Zeevi, a robustly built man, was far from an immobile guardian between the goalposts. His Westport Late Knights teammates describe him as a sprightly netminder, who would dive "like a 16-year-old kid" to block shots on his goal. To many, "Kuti" -- as he was widely known to family and friends -- ranked as one of the best keepers with whom they ever played.
Soccer stood out as one of the great interests of Kuti Zeevi-- a Westport jeweler beloved by family and his many friends as an ebullient, generous and compassionate man. When he was not playing soccer himself, he enjoyed watching the sport. Zeevi was an ardent supporter of Chelsea, one of the top teams in the English Premier League.
Today, Zeevi no longer patrols the goalposts at the Long Lots pitch. But he still "watches" the action from a sandy-colored bench at the top of an embankment next to the field. The seat was donated by Zeevi's teammates. It commemorates his life with a small plaque that reads: "In loving memory of dear Kuti, the soccer enthusiast. Here is a place you can forever watch your friends playing the game you loved so much!"
The bench at Long Lots is one of several remembrances throughout town paying tribute to the life of Kuti Zeevi. Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of his death at the hands of an armed robber, who after casing Zeevi's Y.Z. Jewelry office for several days, brazenly gunned down Zeevi on the night of Dec. 8, 2011, in the Compo Shopping Center outlet.
Zeevi's death devastated his family and friends and shook the Westport community. The homicide touched off an international manhunt for Zeevi's killer -- a concerted, complex multi-agency pursuit which ended several weeks later in the suspected assailant's capture in Spain.
A year later, those who knew and loved Kuti, as well as Westport police, still acutely feel the tragedy.
Members of his inner circle still mourn his loss, but they say they have not lost hope. Instead, they have undertaken a number of initiatives to remember Zeevi as a way to create a lasting legacy of his contributions to his adopted hometown and country.
Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011
Yekutiel Zeevi's killer was not unknown to him. The two had met in Zeevi's final days under seemingly auspicious circumstances -- Zeevi planned to do business with him.
Andrew Robert Levene, the 41-year-old who law-enforcement officials identified as Zeevi's killer, presented himself to Zeevi as a prospective buyer, according to an arrest warrant affidavit filed in January in U.S. District court by Westport police Detective Philip Restieri and Deputy U.S. Marshal James Masterson. Identifying himself as "Robert," Levene spoke on the phone several times with Zeevi before making an appointment to visit the Y.Z. Jewelry office on Dec. 7. Along with Zeevi's business associate, Ronen Konfino, the men convened to look at several diamonds, each about three to four carats. They discussed a possible purchase by Levene and agreed to meet again the following night, according to the affidavit.
When the three men met again the next night, Levene looked at six diamonds worth a total of approximately $300,000. After about a half-hour, he told Zeevi and Konfino he wanted to "sleep on it," according to the affidavit. He then shifted in his seat, reached into his jacket, pulled out a gun and shot Zeevi and Konfino. After seizing the diamonds, he found the office keys, let himself out and fled.
Zeevi likely died quickly from his injuries, but Konfino survived. Although he was seriously injured, he was able to call 911 from the office at about 10 p.m. to report the shooting. Soon after police were dispatched to the scene, Kuti Zeevi's wife, Nava, was informed of the shooting.
"A beautiful life together ended in one shocking phone call," she said in a recent letter to the Westport News. "Your husband was shot in his office. What does one do when their world collapses in one minute?"
Zeevi was 65. A native of the Tel Aviv area in Israel and a former Israeli navy commando, he and Nava immigrated to the U.S. soon after they married in 1971. In Westport, he and his wife raised their son, Neer, and daughter, Tali. He crafted custom jewelry there too, an enterprise that he ran for about 30 years.
Friends of Zeevi reeled when they learned that he had been killed.
"The first reaction was disbelief," said Kenneth Kuo, president of the Westport-based Connecticut School of Music, whose friendship with the Zeevi family started in the mid-1980s. "I thought I was dreaming and that I was trapped in a nightmare."
The shock of the killing reverberated throughout Westport, a town unaccustomed to violent crimes and homicides. Before Zeevi's death, the last murder in town took place in 1996, when an administrative assistant at Temple Israel was shot and killed by her estranged husband in the house of worship's religious school offices. The man then turned the gun on himself.
It was another deep shock for Temple Israel, since Zeevi had been a member of the synagogue. Three days after Zeevi was killed, hundreds of mourners packed the temple's sanctuary for a memorial service.
"The good memories the family has of him will never fade," Temple Israel Rabbi Robert Orkand, who led the memorial service, said this week. "You never move on from tragedy; you move through it. I think that's what the family did."
The last robbery-homicide in Westport occurred in the early 1980s at a now-defunct Chinese restaurant on Post Road East.
"Westport's hardly immune to serious crime, but there was, without a doubt, a moment of disbelief," Westport Police Chief Dale Call recalled of the moment he was told that Zeevi had been killed.
Within hours of Zeevi's death, Westport police teamed with state and federal law-enforcement officials to launch a broad, fast-moving investigation. The operation involved dozens of law-enforcement agencies and departments. Twenty-five detectives worked on the case, including six from Westport's detective bureau. Restieri and Detective Chris Allegro, a member of the Connecticut State Police's Western District Major Crime Squad, were the investigation's case officers. In that role, they cultivated leads, directed detectives in the field and built the case as evidence and clues were gathered for what appeared to be a baffling crime.
A quick response was critical. If Westport officers and their counterparts from other agencies could not swiftly develop leads, they risked letting the robber slip away for good. At the same time, they faced a torrent of challenges. During the first two days of the investigation, they responded to hundreds of phone calls with tips. After a week, Westport detectives had each logged more than 100 hours on the case.
The elusiveness and cunning of the culprit heightened the difficulty of the case. In Levene, law-enforcement officials encountered a target with a long history of dubious business dealings who knew how to obfuscate. In addition to his alias of "Robert Thomas," Levene created a shadowy persona by disguising himself with hats and glasses as he cased a number of jewelry stores in Philadelphia and Fairfield County in the days leading up to the killing of Zeevi. He also did not linger long in any one place, traveling frequently between Spain's two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona -- where his wife and two children settled -- as well as Philadelphia and the metropolitan New York area in the weeks leading up to the robbery-homicide at Y.Z. Jewelry.
"This guy, Andrew Levene, was so good at covering his tracks and how he premeditated and planned for his crime," Restieri told the Westport News. "He was very, very thorough."
Investigators also did not have a lot of physical evidence from the crime scene. Levene did not leave behind his gun, for instance. But they did have a crucial asset -- an eyewitness in Konfino. Looking through a Federal Bureau of Investigation "facial identification" catalog, Konfino picked out photographs that resembled Levene's features. From those selections and other input from Konfino, a sergeant from the Metropolitan Transit Authority Police Department, who was trained as a sketch artist, drew a composite image of Levene. When the sketch was done, Konfino rated its likeness to Levene on a scale of one to 10 as an "11," according to the affidavit by Restieri and Masterson. Within a week of the homicide, Westport police released a sketch of Levene, as well as a wanted poster, which showed surveillance camera pictures of him in disguise as he headed to Y.Z. Jewelry and checked out other jewelry stores in the region.
Phone records also proved instrumental in helping investigators to outline Levene's activities. By examining the calls made and received on Zeevi's and Konfino's cellphones, as well as the land lines at Y.Z. Jewelry, law-enforcement officials zeroed in on a cellphone with a New York City area code that Levene used frequently between late August and December 2011. Records of that phone's outgoing and incoming calls and text messages helped investigators to plot Levene's whereabouts as he shuttled between the northeastern U.S. and Spain before and after the death of Zeevi. By Jan. 10, when Restieri and Masterson filed their arrest warrant affidavit, investigators were confident that they knew that Levene had returned to Spain.
After six-and-a-half weeks on the run, Andrew Robert Levene was arrested Jan. 23 in Barcelona on federal murder, robbery and firearm charges. By the time he was apprehended, the hunt for Levene had grown into an international initiative, including U.S. Attorneys' offices, airport authorities in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) and Spanish national police.
"Everyone had a hand in this," Westport police Detective Jillian Cabana told the Westport News. "We wouldn't have been able to solve this without all these different agencies. It was really a coordinated effort."
After Levene was arrested, American law-enforcement officials planned to extradite him back to the U.S. But the prosecution ended quickly and unexpectedly. A couple of days after he was detained, Levene was found dead in his Barcelona jail cell. Authorities said he hanged himself.
"I was really disappointed," Restieri said. "We had such a great case and such great teamwork with all the agencies in solving this crime and actually arresting someone in another country. ... You want to be able to sit down with that person and talk about it, have the conversation. There are some answers we want to have."
Levene's death brought an abrupt, grisly end to an enigmatic life. A native of Woodbridge, Levene was peripatetic, often traversing the country to pursue real estate ventures in places such as Crested Butte, Colo., and Nantucket, Mass.
At the beginning of this year, his wife and two children were believed to still be abroad after traveling with Levene to Barcelona in September 2011, according to Restieri and Masterson's affidavit.
Westport police declined to comment this week on whether law-enforcement officials had recovered the diamonds that Levene stole from Zeevi's office.
Authorities have also implicated Levene in other crimes. In February, Restieri was one of several law-enforcement officials who apprehended Felix Maurent, an apparent associate of Levene, in Jersey City, N.J., in connection with a home invasion in Genoa Township, Ohio. Levene orchestrated the break-in with Maurent, according to Restieri. Maurent was found guilty in July on several counts of aggravated burglary, kidnapping and extortion, according to Ohio news outlets.
One year later
Twelve months ago, the Compo Shopping Center was a crime scene -- cordoned off by yellow police tape and filled with police vehicles. Now, it has reverted to a typically busy Post Road commercial plaza.
But reminders of Zeevi abound there. On a brick wall next to the front door of the office complex where Zeevi worked, the Y.Z. Jewelry sign is gone. In its place, a pristine, new plaque hangs, designating the spot "Kuti's Way," a memento conceived by Gail Barzilai, a friend of the Zeevis. It lists a number of characteristics that family and friends use to describe the late jeweler: generous and big hearted, kind, open, passionate, lively, devoted and caring. The commemorative piece also includes likenesses of two shimmering gems and carries a message: "Shining like a precious stone -- our genuine friend who will certainly be missed."
Many Compo Shopping Center merchants say they still miss and think about Zeevi.
Gold's Delicatessen co-owner Nancy Eckl still keeps a copy of the wanted poster with images of Levene that was displayed in the deli until the suspect was arrested.
"How do you throw it away?" she said. "As I straighten up, I just keep putting it back in the same place. It's Westport's history."
During the last year, family and friends have sought to highlight Zeevi's place in the town's history. In April, Kuo, along with Nava and Neer Zeevi, organized a concert in his memory at the Unitarian Church in Westport. With his wife at the piano and his son and Kuo on the cello, they played classical, R&B and soul favorites of Kuti.
Kuo met the Zeevis through music; he was a student in the mid-1980s at the Manhattan School of Music with Neer and Tali Zeevi. Neer is now a physician at the University of Connecticut Health Center. Tali passed away in 2007, after a long battle with leukemia.
The Connecticut School of Music founder described the memorial concert as a fitting tribute for a man who encouraged him to found the institution.
"He's as real as it comes, and that's how I'll remember him," Kuo said. "He was a real gentleman."
Meanwhile, Zeevi's soccer teammates still play every week at the Long Lots field, still motivated by his charismatic legacy.
"Every Sunday, when I sit on the bench to put on my cleats, Kuti's image comes to me," said Isaac Levy. "He is still so much in all of us. He sits there while we play soccer and gives directions to everyone or yells, "pass the ball to Isaac, he is open."
Nava Zeevi attends many of their matches. Each time she comes, she lays flowers for her late husband on the bench dedicated to him.
"I feel very close to them, and want to stay close," she said. "They were like extended family to Kuti."
Other tributes to Zeevi are planned. Ami Dabush, one of Zeevi's soccer teammates, and Zeevi's sister, Ilana, are raising funds to plant a small memorial forest near Jerusalem.
But the memory of Yekutiel "Kuti" Zeevi endures most tangibly not through any monument, but through a very young descendant. Five days after his father died, Neer Zeevi's wife, Liora, gave birth to a boy. The couple named him Yuval, which means brook or stream of water in Hebrew. He is Zeevi's first grandchild.
"As he opened his eyes for the first time we all knew that Kuti is looking at us through them," Nava Zeevi recalled. "He is sweet, adorable, clever and funny, the grandson Kuti was so eagerly waiting, and sadly, will never meet. But I am here, getting ready for the times I will be telling him all about the legacy of this lovable, warm, generous, smart, funny and loving grandpa he missed."
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